Sunday, 12 August 2012

Disability feminism 101

The current situation for women living with disabilities in Australia

The content outlining the disadvantage experienced by women with disabilities in Australia is taken from a paper titled ‘Women With Disabilities Australia: Policy Paper: 'Assessing the situation of women with disabilities in Australia: A human rights approach'-(July 2011)--written with extensive research and documentation by Women With Disabilities Australia--the peak organisation for women with all types of disabilities in Australia ( Both men and women with disabilities face discrimination and a-sexualisation however; women with disabilities face particular disadvantages in the areas of education, work and employment, family and reproductive rights, health, violence and abuse. These are just some of the facts:

-Women with disabilities experience violence, particularly family violence and violence in institutions, more often than disabled men;
-Gender-based violence, including domestic/family violence, sexual assault/rape is a cause of disability in women;
-Women and girls with disabilities are often at greater risk than disabled men, both within and outside the home, of violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation;
-Women with disabilities are more vulnerable as victims of crimes from both strangers and people who are known to them, yet crimes against disabled women are often never reported to law enforcement agencies;
-While disabled people are much more likely to live in poverty, women with disabilities are likely to be poorer than men with disabilities;
-Women with disabilities are still subjected to forced sterilizations within Australia
-Women with disabilities are more likely to be sole parents, to be living on their own, or in their parental family than disabled men;
-Women with disabilities who are parents, or who seek to become parents, face barriers in accessing adequate health care and other services for both themselves and their child/ren.

Disability feminism 101

In light of these depressing facts what can we do as feminists, to understand and mobilize around these issues? We can start by ensuring events are assessable! We can understand disability politics and disability feminism and fight the struggles from within these political perspectives. Disability feminism at its core deals with issues of the non-normative body/mind and how our experience of our disabilities are socially mediated and constructed by power. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a disability feminist scholar and activist, writes about transforming feminist theory through the inclusion of the experience of disability. She proclaims that 

''disability allows for a critique of the intersections between the politics of appearance and the medicalization of subjugated bodies/minds. Feminist disability theory’s radical critique hinges on a broad understanding of disability as a pervasive cultural system that stigmatizes certain kinds of bodily variations. At the same time, this system has the potential to incite a critical politics. The informing premise of feminist disability theory is that disability, like femaleness, is not a natural state of corporeal inferiority, inadequacy, excess, or a stroke of misfortune. Rather, disability is a culturally fabricated narrative of the body, similar to what we understand as the fictions of race and gender. The disability/ability system produces subjects by differentiating and marking bodies. Although this comparison of bodies is ideological rather than biological, it nevertheless penetrates into the formation of culture, legitimating an unequal distribution of resources, status, and power within a biased social and architectural environment. As such, disability has four aspects: first, it is a system for interpreting and disciplining bodily variations; second, it is a relationship between bodies and their environments; third, it is a set of practices that produce both the able-bodied and the disabled; fourth, it is a way of describing the inherent instability of the embodied self. The disability system excludes the kinds of bodily forms, functions, impairments, changes, or ambiguities that call into question our cultural fantasy of the body as a neutral, compliant instrument of some transcendent will. A feminist disability theory denaturalizes disability by unseating the dominant assumption that disability is something that is wrong with someone. By this I mean, of course, that it mobilizes feminism’s highly developed and complex critique of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality as exclusionary and oppressive systems rather than as the natural and appropriate order of things''.

Some of our key struggles as women with disabilities are the opposite of those of mainstream feminism
A-sexualization is one such issue--to be seen as sexual beings, we want to have this choice, to cruise across the dance floor and do the pash, in short to be looked at and desired as a sexual object/being!  Mainstream feminism fights against the objectification of women’s bodies, disability feminism fights to be seen as sexy and desirable. Arising from this a-sexualisation is difficulty in finding partners and having healthy relationships where we are treated as equal and valued, free from emotional and physical abuse. Another key issue is the right to become mothers if we so wish, as we are often prevented through sterilization or being given the pill, (a common experience for women with intellectual disabilities), or actively discouraged from having children at all (Ball, 2004 cited in Newell, 2008, p. 80). If we have children there is a risk they will be taken from us, with recent research showing that over one third of children are removed from our care (Newell, 2008, p. 80).

 Feminist writer Jenny Morris writes:
‘Most people who we are interacting with including our lovers, are not like us--they don’t have a disability. It is therefore very difficult for us to recognise and challenge the values and judgments that are applied to us and our lives. Our ideas about disability and ourselves are generally informed by those who are not disabled’ (Morris, 1991, p.37). It takes courage to go out in public when we repeatedly encounter rejection and revulsion towards our non-normative bodies, are asked questions, such as ‘‘what’s wrong with you?’’ which exemplify an unequal power relationship and embody assumptions about our lives, and when ‘the very physical environment tells us that we don’t belong.

The affects of oppression
‘Once oppression has been internalized, little force is needed to keep us submissive’ as we continually inflict the pain of our oppression back upon ourselves (Campbell, 2009, p.16). The mental health effects of living in a disabling society have been found to place us at ‘double the risk of devolving a substance abuse problem or psychiatric disorder due to increased stress’ compared to the general population (Turner, Lloyd, & Taylor, 2006, p.221). The high rates of domestic violence and abuse women with disabilities are subject to leaves us at a greater risk of developing PTSD, depression, anxiety or other forms of mental illness, subsequent disabilities which further compound our disadvantage.  

 What can we do as feminists?
 ‘One of the reasons the situation for people with disabilities has been so slow to change is precisely because they are positioned as the ‘other’ in our culture. To change such terrain requires all of us to undertake a great deal of listening, talking and communication in so many ways in order to imagine disability differently and to change something that moves often only very imperceptibly-our culture itself. To embark on this journey, and proceed with it when it becomes difficult, we cannot avoid seeking answers to some important questions: why are we so concerned with defining and enforcing normalcy? What is at stake for all of us in confronting the frailties of our bodies, minds and lives? (Goggin & Newell 2005, p.200). How can we as feminists resist normative constructions of bodies/minds and find ways to subvert and challenge them?
Extracts from above from:

Thomas, C, 2004, Disability and Impairment in Swain, J, French, S, Barns, C & Thomas, C, (eds), 2004, Disabling Barriers-Enabling Environments, (2end ed.), Sage Publications, London.

Goggin, G & Newell, C, 2005, Disability in Australia: Exposing a Social Apartheid, University of New South Wales Press, Kensigton. 

Garland-Thomson, R, 2006, Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory in Davis, L, (ed) 2006, The Disabilities Studies Reader (2end ed.)

Morris, J, 1991, Pride Against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability, The Women’s Press, London.

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